Kemp signs bill to bring sweeping reforms to senior care in Georgia

Gov. Brian Kemp signs House Bill 987, the senior care reform bill, into law as (from left) Rep. John LaHood (R-Valdosta), Joe Hood of the Georgia Department of Community Health, and Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta) watch at Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Georgians living in senior care homes won a slate of new protections Tuesday when Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill to reform an industry that too often failed to provide adequate care, even as it enticed families with resort-like amenities and gourmet menus.

Under the new law, administrators of assisted living and large personal care homes for the first time will be required to pass a test and be licensed. Memory care units will now have to be certified. Nurses will be required in assisted living and memory care, and overall staffing and training requirements will increase. Homes will also have to prove they have the financial means to operate before they get a license and will have to disclose any financial problems that come up after they open.

» SEARCHABLE DATABASE: Details on every facility studied by the AJC

» MORE: The 'Unprotected' investigative series

In addition, those caught breaking the rules will now face bigger fines. Under the old law, the typical penalty for the worst violations was $601. Now, the state must impose a fine of at least $5,000 for a violation which causes a resident to be seriously harmed or to die.

Most of the new law relates to assisted living communities and personal care homes of 25 beds or more, but a section on COVID-19 also applies to the state’s nursing homes, and it will require testing, planning and preparedness for a pandemic

“Amid the stress of COVID 19, seniors can celebrate that Georgia’s leaders have greatly increased the safeguards in senior care facilities,” said Kathy Floyd, executive director of the Georgia Council on Aging.

OUR REPORTING

Thousands of Georgia families rely on private-pay assisted living communities and large personal care homes. To examine the quality of care they receive, AJC reporters spent more than a year compiling and analyzing thousands of government documents and databases and conducting dozens of interviews. The investigation of Georgia's system revealed hundreds of cases of neglect and abuse, nearly two dozen deaths and dangerous gaps in oversight that leave vulnerable seniors unprotected. The AJC published its findings last year in a series of stories and the newspaper also produced a ratings website for consumers. The legislation that Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law Tuesday addresses many of the problems highlighted by the AJC's reporting.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, in response to an investigative series last year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that exposed hundreds of cases of neglect and abuse at senior care homes whose marketing materials promised attentive care in comfortable, well-appointed buildings. The AJC's series also uncovered a weak and permissive oversight system in Georgia that failed to protect residents and didn't provide families with easy access to information about inspections. The AJC filled the void by creating a ratings website for consumers with detailed inspection information and police reports for facilities across Georgia.

Cooper said her decision to push for the new law grew out of her background as a registered nurse and a commitment through her career to help Georgians receive quality care.

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“This bill addresses an urgent need, that was brought to my attention, to dramatically reform our standards for elder care in Georgia,” Cooper said at the Capitol on Tuesday. “I am proud of the work we have done and thank Gov. Kemp for signing this measure into law.”

Many of the law’s provisions do not take effect until July of next year, and the state Department of Community Health, which oversees long-term care facilities, will go through a rule-making process to set the detailed requirements of the legislation. For example, a process for certifying memory care units will have to be established. Also, a new board will have to be appointed to handle licensing administrators.

Some other provisions, including those related to COVID-19, take effect immediately. That includes the requirement that all residents and staff of long-term care facilities be tested for COVID-19 within 90 days, if they haven’t been tested already.

"One of the key battlegrounds in the fight against COVID-19 continues to be in our nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and personal care homes, and I am proud to say that HB 987 strengthens our collective efforts to protect elderly Georgians in these unprecedented times," Kemp said in a statement Tuesday.

House Bill 987 won broad support from lawmakers, advocates and the senior care industry itself, and the final version of the bill was approved unanimously in both the state House and Senate.

From left, Rep. Chuck Efstration, Rep. John LaHood and Rep. Sharon Cooper gathered before a February press conference to announce legislation to reform the state’s assisted living and personal care industry. The Georgia House passed one bill sponsored by Cooper, R-Marietta, and supported by LaHood, R-Valdosta, whose family owns and operates senior care homes. Efstration, R-Dacula, is sponsor of another bill that has yet to come up for House vote. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, a lawmaker who also owns and operates assisted living facilities, worked with Cooper to help craft the bill.

“As a legislator and a provider, I recognize the importance of good policy that provides safe environments for older adults where they can age with grace and dignity,” LaHood said Tuesday, before joining Kemp for the bill signing. “I’m happy that we came up with something that will make Georgia a better place to grow old.”

LaHood said some elements of the bill could increase the costs for providers, but he expected the requirements to make a difference for residents, such as the new rules for nurse staffing and for licensing those who run the facilities. Requiring certification for memory care units should also make a difference too, he said.

» RELATED: AJC's 'Unprotected' series spus call for change in senior care

» MORE: Legislature adopts sweeping reforms for senior care homes 

Gail Walker is among the Georgians who applauded the passage of the bill. Her mother, Lucile M. Brown, had been a resident of the John-Wesley Villas care facility in Macon. No one noticed that the 92-year-old great-grandmother and retired teacher had left the home in the middle of the night, apparently in a state of confusion from her dementia. An alarm was supposed to alert the staff at John-Wesley if a door opened, but it either failed or wasn't heard. Brown was found dead at the bottom of an embankment. The state cited the facility for what it deemed a relatively low-level violation over its failed alarm system, but no fine was imposed.

“I’m just thrilled that maybe going forward there will be more families that won’t be affected in a negative way,” Walker said Tuesday after Kemp signed the bill. “I think it’s great.”

She said for the bill to really make a difference, Georgia must commit to holding homes accountable with its oversight process. “If you’re not going to enforce and follow through on those rules, then at the end of the day you haven’t gained anything.”

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